Dictionary of Political Quotations

who said what on history, government, and war

Reference book:
Anthony Jay (ed)

Reviewed by:
On 2 August 2009
Last modified:13 February 2015


Compendium of who said what on history, government, and war

Editor Anthony Jay argues that there is a solid core of political wisdom in his Dictionary of Political Quotations which runs from Aeschylus to the not-so-classic George Dubya Bush. But this huge compilation also includes occasional witticisms and put-downs which say more about the speaker than the subject – such as Churchill’s description of Clement Atlee as A modest man who has much to be modest about.

Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations The latest edition of this work has also been brought up to date with what are called Soundbites, including such gems as John Prescott on the issuing of identity cards:

Entitlement cards will not be compulsory, but everyone will have to have one

On bureaucracy in his own country, the Italian politician Antonio Martino observes:

In Milan, traffic lights are instructions. In Rome, they are suggestions. In Naples, they are Christmas decorations.

Entries are listed alphabetically by author, from Diane Abbott [UK MP] to Emile Zola – who has one of the shortest contributions: J’accuse. The sequence is punctuated by the inclusion of special categories including political slogans, mottoes, epitaphs, famous last words, newspaper headlines, and misquotations.

Every effort is made to give the accurate source – and in fact there is a running column down the right-hand side of the page supplying all the details, including false attributions which have stuck.

Churchill, Disraeli, Jefferson, and Lincoln get the lion’s share of space, with Burke, Bagehot, and Shakespeare close runners up. Since the examples for each individual are arranged in chronological order, reading Churchill’s is rather like watching a speeded-up film of his rise and fall as a politician.

It’s a browser’s treasure trove. Entries run from the grim realism of Oliver Cromwell’s describing the execution of Charles I as Cruel necessity, to Woody Allen’s I believe there is something out there watching over us – Unfortunately it’s the government, or the anonymous lady in the Savoy hotel: But this is terrible —they’ve elected a Labour Government, and the country will never stand for that.

It’s not a book you can read continuously. I tried it, and after a few pages, even the most trenchant remarks all seem to merge into a bland porridge. But then just occasionally something completely absurd jumps off the page – such as Ronald Reagan’s anti-abortion argument: I’ve noticed that everybody who is for abortion has already been born. You couldn’t make it up, could you?

© Roy Johnson 2007

Dictionary of Political Quotations   Buy the book at Amazon UK
Dictionary of Political Quotations   Buy the book at Amazon US

Anthony Jay (ed) The Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3rd edition, 2007, pp.560, ISBN: 0198610610

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